What is a CMS and do I need one?

October 14th, 2011 |

Most websites we design these days go on to be built on top of a platform known as a Content Management System. These do exactly as the name suggests, they allow a site owner to manage the content of their website. But what do they really do? I mean, what’s their purpose, and more to the point, do you really need one?

What is a Content Management System?

A CMS allows you to separate website code (i.e. functionality in PHP) and website design (i.e. HTML and CSS) from the actual content (i.e. the copy). By keeping the content separate and storing it independently in a database, a website owner with no knowledge of coding is easily able to make modifications. To enable them to do this, a CMS will make a web-based interface available not all that different from the ‘mini-Word Processors’ in email clients. You can browse through a list of pages, select one for editing, use the tools to embolden or underline text and then click save to publish these changes to the world.

The benefit to the website owner is that they don’t have to pay someone to make minor changes for them. Need to change a page title? Need to add a new page? Delete a paragraph of text? All ridiculously easy to do! The benefit to the provider is that they’re not inundated with change requests, we can concentrate on our real work of building websites.

The pages you’ll see on your site if it has a CMS installed are not files on the server that you can open and edit. They are generated dynamically by the CMS when requested. If a visitor requests the about page, the CMS would fetch a template file (with the design code in it) that corresponds to the look and feel it was decided the about page should have, it then pulls the about page content from the database you may have edited earlier and places it into that code. This is now sent as if it were a static file to the visitor’s browser and they and none the wiser.

Does this mean I need a CMS?

In most cases, probably. It depends on the amount of content you have and how often you need to change it. The initial extra cost and effort to get a CMS configured at the beginning could easily be made up with big savings over time. It also depends on the functionality you require. If you need dynamically generated content of any kind or the ability for users to interact – i.e. a blog with comments, you’ll need a dynamic database-driven system to provide it.

Which CMS do I choose?

There are countless different content management systems, some serve a particular niche, others target everyone. Each have various pros and cons to consider. Three of the largest and most popular are WordPress, Drupal and Joomla!

WordPress is famous for its ease of use, its extensibility through plugins, its focus on bloging and its lower set-up and maintenance costs. It has by far the most number of users and websites built on its platform.

Drupal may well be considered a more serious CMS, but this comes at a price of complexity and development costs. It’s not the easiest CMS to work with for a beginner, but it is powerful. Joomla! is a bit easier to work with, but it too can feel overbearing, especially if you site is on the small side.

At WAQA Studios we’d discuss your requirements with you to determine what is best for you as a user and for the technical requirements of your website. Whether one of the big three, something smaller and simpler, or even something tailor-made, we’ll help you make the right decision.

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